Category Archives: Restoration Agriculture

Hobbits, Unicorns, and a Cow Goddess

I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me.  I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.

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Isadora, the Adorable

The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!

In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.

The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.

Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.

photo 1 (2)Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.

I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.

Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…

If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.

Begin again with the Beekman Boys:

A Rose by any Other Name

There’s a kind of innocence with which we reconnect as adults studying ecological design. The design process emphasizes the importance of observation, a kind of observation free from agenda or assumptions. It’s not easy, but there are ways to practice observation to enhance your ability to see your environment without immediately interpreting and assigning value or reacting to what is being observed.

Observation, not Reactive Observation
Ba Gug at Healing Tree Farm
Gug at Healing Tree Farm

First, let’s explore the difference between observation and reactive observation. The example I use most often is that of the “invasive.” Consider a forest canopy in which there is a presence of tent caterpillar. They have eaten away the foliage on an old maple tree amid an otherwise dense canopy.

Reactive observation might lead to the immediate assignment of weighted words like “infestation,” “destruction,” “invasive,” “damage,” and “bad.” However, these words do little to describe the relationship of the tent caterpillar to the natural environment. Observing this same scene without reactivity means looking at the individual elements, first, then observing any relationship these elements may have with neighboring elements.

In this scenario, we might include notes like:

  • Presence of tent caterpillars
  • Maple canopy eaten by tent caterpillars
  • Maple tree old
  • Sunlight on forest floor
  • Presence of green foliage on forest floor
  • New forest edge forming
  • Presence of birds more so on maple, than other trees

These observations do not assign values to the individual elements, but allow us to make interpretations free from reactivity. Rather than a hyper focus on the “damage” done to the maple tree, we might be able to see how the presence of the tent caterpillars opened the canopy, thereby allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor, creating a new forest edge. The presence of anything that might feed off of the tent caterpillars indicates a natural response to a change in the bio-web.

Practicing Observation

Prior to practicing observation, it’s sometimes fun to test your observation skills. So often, those new to this process protect their ego, asserting that they are good observers and insisting they do not need practice to see. They then, inevitably, go on to do an initial site plan, forgetting major elements like large trees, sheds, or pathways – the brain simply takes these elements for granted.

To practice the art of observation, sit in one spot for a period of 15 minutes. Spend the first 60 DSC_0101seconds writing down anything you observe in an area as small as a square foot, from visual to auditory to sensory to olfactory. Take a break, then observe the same space for another 60 seconds, noting anything new you can observe that you may have missed previously. Repeat this practice until you can no longer detect the individual elements. At this point, begin noting any relationships between the individual elements, again in one minute increments.

Consider a dandelion. Assume you knew nothing about the plant. Instead of asking “What’s it called?” examine and make note of its individual elements, from the broad leaves radiating out from the stem, to the flower, to the bee on the flower, to the deep taproot. What kinds of plants are growing next to the dandelion? Each of these characteristics and relationship-oriented elements can tell us loads of information more than a label. A dandelion, by any other name is still, after all, a dandelion.

Next, Work from Patterns to Details

The above practice helps you observe individual elements and their relationships in an environment. The next step is to make broad observations of an environment. Patterns in nature, whether spirals, branching, key-hole, or waves, are repeated on a grand scale, like the spiral galaxy, to something small like the structure of our DNA double helix. These patterns do not repeat because they are pretty, but because they are efficient.

Consider the Mississippi. It’s fed from multiple, smaller rivers and streams. The bulk of the transport of water is taking photo 1place where these rivers and streams merge and the path followed is that of least resistance to water. We can mimic this same pattern in the design of our garden beds, with the wider paths being accessible to tools or other resources, to the smaller pathways that allow enough space for the human element to harvest. Walking this space and observing where you feel naturally inclined to walk, can help aid you in the design of pathways for the space.

You may also observe a space from a distance and notice the types of plants growing in a space. Plants can indicate much about the health of a soil to the soil type and water accessibility. They can also indicate previous human presence or soil degradation. Taking the broad view, you might spot rows of spotted knapweed growing among carrot flower, indicating a space once occupied by an orchard or cornfield. This kind of broad observation can help you formulate a plan for revitalization of soil at the site.

Using that same example, work from the larger pattern and what it tells you, to smaller details, like proximity to resources that can provide nutrients, pathways of water-flow occurring naturally, to changes in the edge space between the field and the neighboring ecosystem.

Working within the Nature’s Envelope

Working within nature’s envelope, rather than forcing a design on a space will save time and energy in the long run. Running any system using this model can improve overall productivity and efficiency, whether it’s a working farm or a business. Practice may never make perfect, but it’ll certainly take you a step closer to where you’d like to be.

Fiber for Sale!

imageWe’re spinning out some lovely shades of gray and delicious pink this spring. While the pink is entirely local Shetland, these handsome grays are a blend of our own Suri alpaca and Shetland. 100% Hand-spun, local, and lovely luster.

$28/skein or partial barter, discount on multi-skein purchases. Available for pick-up at the DeYoung farmhouse off Cherry Bend Road. Contact healingtreefarm@gmail.com to purchase.

Thank you kindly for your continued support! 

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Socks also available! These toddler socks are warm and comfy and come with fine farm memories. $30 per pair made from start to finish by the sheep and this farmer.

Shetland Cotton Candy

Introducing Shetland Cotton Candy, hand-spun, hand-dyed local Shetland yarnimage from the farm. The roving looked so much like cotton candy, well, let’s just say, I have a great idea for next April Fools Day.

It’s currently drying, but if you are looking for the perfect yarn for a baby hat or footies, this yarn is for you. Will be available tomorrow for sale. Email for details.

healingtreefarm@gmail.com

Farmhouse in Fall

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In September, traditional plasterer Chris Lewis led a two-day workshop at the farmhouse. This beautiful, smooth lime coat when on over the brown coat EMU students put up in May. Special thanks also to Steve Steir for arranging the workshop and to volunteers who spent the weekend helping at the farmhouse. It looks beautiful!

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Slow and Steady Wins the Race

slowsteadyPeople utilize permaculture principles selectively. It’s in our nature and there are 12. And honestly, it took me a few years before I really, fully, truly understood all 12. That’s part of what makes permaculture a great compliment to nature; it’s natural pace.

Often permaculturalists are asked to rush designs to accommodate what people would like to see, which means bulldozing past quite a few key elements that will make a design thrive. Yes, those plantings may yield after some time of their fight against opportunistic plants better suited for poorer soils, but the time and energy needed is crudely invested.

That said, there are often may outside, human influences rushing the process. We like to see results and for humans these days, that’s something akin to the immediate gratification of seeing plants in the ground. But more and more, I find myself questioning these methods as they fail to reiterate that key principle, Slow and Steady Solutions.

What makes this principle so critical? For one, it allows room for the first principle of Observation, which if practiced alone would save the average gardener years worth of toil. Secondly, working closely with the land at a slower pace allows for a gradual accumulation of new microbes well-suited your soil, it affords valuable time for soil-building and cover cropping in which carbon and nitrogen cycles have time to sufficiently stabilize, and as those changes unfold, creates smaller feedback loops permitting more time to observe changes and adapt.

Where we fail to apply this principle, we find thriving opportunistic plants, decreased yields of desired plants, and if plants suffer, an increase in pests and disease, resulting in a poor demonstration of permaculture and a weary grower. That’s not to say that every permaculturalist who fails to yield to this principle is going to suffer. If done correctly, it is possible to establish a fairly productive system mimicking the longer-duration process, with the right elements in place and with, at the very least, time allotted for observation.

That said, please slow down. Take time to get to know the land. Have a picnic in your future garden space and see experience the wind and sun, the insects, birds, and neighboring plants. As with any relationship, don’t rush it; savor it. Grow with it.